As climate and coronavirus converge, Honolulu files suit

Big Oil can’t ride the wave of government bailouts forever.

Trump to America: Fossil fuel companies need help! The rest of you can figure it out.

Let me just rip off this band-aid first — then we can talk about good news. While the world is in the midst of a rapidly spreading Coronavirus pandemic and millions of Americans lack access to basic testing, healthcare, sick leave, and supplies, the Trump administration is looking to help whom? The multibillion-dollar oil and gas industry, of course.

This is simultaneously shameful, alarming, and telling — and that’s me holding back on my use of adjectives here. But none of us should be shocked. And not just because the Trump administration has had Big Oil’s back since the very beginning. For decades, fossil fuel companies have raked in unbelievable profits thanks to a government safety net and tax breaks while everyone else pays a perilous price. Yet they've never had to pay a dime for the consequences of a crisis they actually created (climate change, that is). So it’s no surprise that in the midst of another disaster Big Oil manages to come out on top.

Well fossil fuel execs better clutch their floaties while they can, because communities across the country are fighting to bring this dangerous era of corporate welfare to a close. This Monday, March 9, Honolulu joined the rising tide of cities and counties demanding that Big Oil pay their fair share. 

The city and county filed suit against a CVS receipt-length list of oil and gas companies, including Exxon, BP, Shell and Chevron, for the consequences of their “public deception campaigns designed to obscure the connection between their products and global warming and the environmental, physical, social, and economic consequences flowing from it” — that is, years of lying that burning fossil fuels would not cause rising seas, more severe storms, chronic flooding and a slew of other climate disasters, even when they knew otherwise.

“I am proud today that the City and County of Honolulu is leading the charge to hold Big Oil accountable for their decades-long misinformation campaign — they knowingly threw our planet headlong into the climate crisis,” said Mayor Caldwell during the city’s press conference. “The people of O‘ahu and people everywhere deserve to see that a portion of the massive profits these corporations have raked in now help pay for the damages that they have caused to our island.” 

You can watch the full announcement here.

So what’s at stake?

A report from the Hawai’i Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission estimated that rising seas would cost $19 billion, and a report for the state’s Department of Transportation found that raising and relocating roads will add up to at least another $15 billion. And that’s just to address one of the many climate impacts coming for the islands — from coastal erosion to hazardous heat, crop loss and ecosystem disruption to supercharged hurricanes, heavy rains, wildfires, and more. Farmers are already losing their livelihoods, local businesses face regular flooding, and families are being displaced as extreme weather wracks the state. 

“Honolulu is expecting over $28 billion in costs to protect its people from the mounting destruction of the climate crisis,” Lauren Wantanabe, the Sierra Club Oʻahu Group’s Manager said in a statement. “Those costs should be paid for by the fossil fuel companies that lied for profit, not the hard-working taxpayers of Honolulu.”

What are those same companies doing while communities struggle to clean up their mess, besides continuing to throw a wrench in attempts to solve the climate crisis and denying their role in perpetuating that crisis? They’re hauling it in and giving absolutely nothing back. ExxonMobil earned over $20 billion in 2018. Chevron earned almost $15 billion. Shell reported close to $21 billion. In 2018, Chevron was found to have paid no federal income taxes at all. Zero.

People in Hawai’i are fed up (and they’re not alone). Our 2019 polling found that after learning about the industry’s deception, 75% of Hawai’i voters support making fossil fuel companies pay for a portion of the damages to local communities caused by global warming. I guess ye olde false advertising isn’t having quite the desired effect, now that the bills are on our collective kitchen table.

Honolulu’s climate cost recovery lawsuit is the 15th to be filed in the U.S., and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Especially given this new COVID-19 curveball, already-strapped local and state governments will need to think carefully about how and where tax dollars are spent. These communities simply can’t afford to re-allocate all their resources towards protecting infrastructure, economies, jobs, and lives from relentless climate impacts while corporate polluters get off scot-free (and with government handouts to boot). The silver lining is that the law says they shouldn’t have to.

“More and more local governments are standing up for their residents and taking Big Oil to court,” said Richard Wiles, executive director for the Center for Climate Integrity. “It’s only a matter of time until this industry, like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, is held accountable for lying to the public about the harm its products would cause.” 

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Hang in there, stay safe, keep fighting the good fight, and keep on washing those hands. Until next week.